Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy
David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world.”

It’s a little strange that such a flamboyant novel has such an unassuming name, but it actually fits pretty well. Beneath the campy exterior is a surprisingly deliberate and thoughtful coming-of-age romance with a meaningful message. Drag queen quarterbacks and harley-riding cheerleaders aren’t just there for comic relief (though they are often humorous), they also represent a utopic vision of society, one in which the star quarterback could be a drag queen. And that’s more or less what Boy Meets Boy is about. It’s delightful to explore Paul’s improbably progressive town and school and see the ways in which Levithan sets about subverting heternormative society as he creates his queer paradise. But unlike many other gay YA novels, he never forgets about the way things actually are. Paul’s friend Tony lives in the next town over, a town which more accurately reflects the actual societal attitude of 2003, and has very religious, very controlling parents. Tony serves as a constant reminder that, while Paul’s life might be charmed, the world still has its problems.

Paul’s character is particularly notable for being pretty much the only person in the novel not completely riddled with teenage angst. In contrast to most other YA protagonists, his life has been downright easy, something Levithan makes a point of emphasizing. Paul never struggled with his sexuality, his parents were accepting, and he’s never faced any social or physical consequences for his orientation, but most of his friends can’t stay the same. It’s a little weird reading a story from the perspective of the one person who’s just completely fine. Watching him solve problems thoughtfully and maturely was a bit bewildering at times because it’s so out of character for the genre. I’m not entirely sure why this aspect of Paul’s character is important to Levithan, but he’s pretty clear that it is. I suppose Paul’s ability to handle emotionally challenging situations caused me to reflect on similar situations in my life and to examine the reasons I might respond the way I do. How much of my behavior is colored by experiences grappling with my sexuality or the consequences of it? Paul could also be viewed as a bit of an instruction manual, demonstrating the right way to behave instead of validating more typical, emotionally charged responses. Regardless of the reason, Paul is a large part of what makes Boy Meets Boy stand out from the (admittedly small) gay YA crowd.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
John Green and David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“Two award-winning and New York Times–bestselling author join forces for a collaborative novel of awesome proportions.

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.

Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won them both legions of faithful fans.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is pretty much a mandatory read for YA fans since it’s a superstar collaboration between two of the best in the business. When they set out to write it, all Green and Levithan knew was that they would each write a character named Will Grayson, and that their characters would meet at some point. While I’m not the world’s biggest YA reader, I have to admit that the end result is pretty unique. The story is told from both characters points of view in alternating chapters, with the second Will Grayson’s (styled ‘will grayson,’ written by Levithan) mimicking an instant messenger chatroom, complete with usernames and no capitalization. As a titanic nerd who lived most of his teen years online, this was very familiar to me. I admit I found it a little difficult to like will grayson during the first part of the book because he was just so damn angsty, but as the story developed so did he, and by the end he was my favorite. Admittedly, he didn’t have that much competition because Green’s properly capitalized Will Grayson was pretty cookie cutter protagonist, intent on keeping a low profile and never rocking the boat, and pretty much succeeding at it. As a whole, Will Grayson, Will Grayson has much more in common with Levithan’s goofiness than it does Green’s high-stakes drama, but as I’ve said before, we need more fun gay stories.

When it was first published in 2010, Will Grayson, Will Grayson became the first LGBTQ+-themed novel to ever make the NYT’s Children’s Bestsellers list, largely due to the fact that few YA or children’s authors wanted to touch the topic. I have to wonder what level of influence it’s had over the last decade. On paper I would think the split narrative might entice readers of any orientation to give it a try, but everywhere I look I see the book categorized as LGBT fiction, which I think is unfortunate. That label may help LGBTQ+ folks find it, but it also makes it easier for those NOT searching that label to never see it. It’s important to write for our own community, but I’ve always felt that the greatest challenge lies in getting those outside of that community to acknowledge our existence in their media. That’s something I really like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, that it tries to cross those boundaries, albeit with limited success. I think on some level, LGBTQ+ people simply don’t exist in the lives of many individuals, so when they encounter them in media, they reflexively categorize that media as being for someone else. It’s easy to forget how large a role systems like Amazon’s play in shaping the content we see and the content we don’t.

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada
Keith Hale
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“By turns funny, romantic, erotic, and sad, this evocative novel brilliantly recreates the landscape of late adolescence, when friendships seem eternal and loves reincarnate. Set in Arkansas but first published in Amsterdam, Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada (published under the title of Cody in United States) quickly won praise from reviewers and readers across Europe and North America. So beautiful, brave, and ahead of its time that William S. Burroughs was an early fan, Clicking Beat remains remarkably current and continues to be unique in coming of age literature. A haunting vision of young friendship shattered by an outrageously cruel world. Keith Hale’s novel aches with adolescent first loves.”

I’ve attempted to write about this book several times over the last few months but always ended up deleting it. On the one hand, it’s a poignant, sensitive, and thoughtful coming of age tale that definitely deserves attention, but on the other, it’s one of the most emotionally grueling books I’ve ever read, to the point where I don’t even want to reread it for this write-up. It’s not always sad–although it’s sad pretty often–it’s just emotionally dense. I feel like nothing ever just happens in this book because every character, plot event, and interaction is saturated with emotional meaning. It’s exhausting, but I guess it’s also impressive. Many writers struggle to make readers care about their characters, but with Hale’s book it’s like I care too much. I don’t think any of that quite qualifies as a downside though, and the book’s strong characters and crisp prose have earned it a lot of well-deserved praise.

Clicking Beat has a highly political focus that I’ve never been quite sure what to make of. The main character goes by Trotsky, and his mother is a university instructor and outspoken advocate of Socialism (remember that this Clicking Beat is set in the 1980s). The strange part of this is the fact that socialism fills the role of catalyst that sexuality normally would in a coming of age story. It’s his mom’s socialism that earns the ire of their Arkansas town and it’s socialism which inspires a number of the (often bad) events which move the story forward. I’m not sure if it was Hale’s attempt to complicate the traditional gay coming of age format or if there was a deeper political meaning to those choices but mostly I just felt confused. Perhaps if I were to reread it it would become clearer to me, but it’s been more than half a decade since I read the book and I don’t feel the need to revisit it, at least not yet.

Also, it is absolutely criminal that the American publisher initially changed the title to Cody. Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada is one of my all time favorite titles and I really can’t fathom how Cody is in any way an improvement.

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is exploring. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories (a side-effect of reading too much classic gay literature) so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I’ve never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why shouldn’t the rest of us be able to?

Magic’s Pawn

Magic’s Pawn
by Mercedes Lackey
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wasn’t no part in such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the fame Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril.”

I gave Magic’s Pawn a bit of short shrift in my write-up for Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so I hope to do it a little more credit here. I initially implied that this book is a gay tragedy, but as I reflect on it, it seems very unjust to reduce it to that label. Just because a tragedy may be present doesn’t mean that a work needs to be defined by it (though plenty are). Lackey’s depiction of homosexuality is sophisticated and reveals a deeper understanding of real-world issues which she reflects onto the land of Valdemar. Modern fantasy novels with queer characters often present worlds in which gender and orientation are a non-issue, and while that’s nice to imagine, it’s too far removed from reality to carry much impact. Lackey’s more realistic approach grants the story a lot more weight, which is perhaps why it was so difficult for me to read when I was younger.

Vanyel’s journey to self-acceptance is a long one chock full of angst and melodrama, just like real ones often are. It’s probably most enjoyable (and useful) when the reader is at a similar stage of their personal development or if they’re in the mood to feel sorry for themselves (that’s not a dig, everyone needs a pity party sometimes). Subject matter aside, it’s an excellent work of fantasy and easily stands alone on those merits. Mercedes Lackey is a household name in fantasy world after all, and she’s published a ridiculous amount of books, many in the same world of Valdemar. I’ve read several others by her and found them all of equally high quality, with Foundation being a favorite. I still think that Magic’s Pawn is too tragic for me, but I suppose the late ‘80s were a pretty tragic time and it’s only natural that the book would reflect that. And of course not everyone will feel that way about tragedy. I think my aversion to it comes from spending too much time immersed in classic gay literature, which is invariably depressing.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

51l50ipatql

Family of Lies: Sebastian
by Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different.